A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the tanmatras and the paramanus: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fourteenth part in the series called the “the kapila and the patanjala samkhya (yoga)”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 14 - The Tanmātras and the Paramāṇus


The other tendency, namely that of tamas, has to be helped by the liberated rajas of ahaṃkāra, in order to make itself preponderant, and this state in which the tamas succeeds in overcoming the sattva side which was so preponderant in the buddhi, is called bhūtādi. From this bhūtādi with the help of rajas are generated the tanmātras , the immediately preceding causes of the gross elements. The bhūtādi thus represents only the intermediate stage through which the differentiations and regroupings of tamas reals in the mahat proceed for the generation of the tanmātras. There has been some controversy between Sāṃkhya and Yoga as to whether the tanmātras are generated from the mahat or from ahaṃkāra. The situation becomes intelligible if we remember that evolution here does not mean coming out or emanation, but increasing differentiation in integration within the evolving whole. Thus the regroupings of tamas reals marks the differentiation which takes place within the mahat but through its stage as bhūtādi.

Bhūtādi is absolutely homogeneous and inert, devoid of all physical and chemical characters except quantum or mass. The second stadium tanmātra represents subtle matter, vibratory, impingent, radiant, instinct with potential energy. These “potentials” arise from the unequal aggregation of the original mass-units in different proportions and collocations with an unequal distribution of the original energy (rajas). The tanmātras possess something more than quantum of mass and energy; they possess physical characters, some of them penetrability, others powers of impact or pressure, others radiant heat, others again capability of viscous and cohesive attraction[2].

In intimate relation with those physical characters they also possess the potentials of the energies represented by sound, touch, colour, taste, and smell; but, being subtle matter, they are devoid of the peculiar forms which these “potentials” assume in particles of gross matter like the atoms and their aggregates. In other words, the potentials lodged in subtle matter must undergo peculiar transformations by new groupings or collocations before they can act as sensory stimuli as gross matter, though in the minutest particles thereof the sensory stimuli may be infra-sensible (atīndriya but not anudbhūta)[3].

Of the tanmātras the śabda or ākāśa tanmātra (the sound-potential) is first generated directly from the bhūtādi. Next comes the sparśa or the vāyu tanmātra (touch-potential) which is generated by the union of a unit of tamas from bhūtādi with the ākāśa tanmātra. The rūpa tanmātra (colour-potential) is generated similarly by the accretion of a unit of tamas from bhūtādi; the rasa tanmātra (taste-potential) or the ap tanmātra is also similarly formed. This ap tanmātra again by its union with a unit of tamas from bhūtādi produces the gandha tanmātra (smell-potential) or the kṣiti tanmātra[4]. The difference of tanmātras or infra-atomic units and atoms (paramānu) is this, that the tanmātras have only the potential power of affecting our senses, which must be grouped and regrouped in a particular form to constitute a new existence as atoms before they can have the power of affecting our senses. It is important in this connection to point out that the classification of all gross objects as kṣiti, ap, tejas, marut and vyoman is not based upon a chemical analysis, but from the points of view of the five senses through which knowledge of them could be brought home to us. Each of our senses can only apprehend a particular quality and thus five different ultimate substances are said to exist corresponding to the five qualities which may be grasped by the five senses. In accordance with the existence of these five elements, the existence of the five potential states or tanmātras was also conceived to exist as the ground of the five gross forms.

The five classes of atoms are generated from the tanmātras as follows: the sound-potential, with accretion of rudiment matter from bhūtādi generates the ākāśa-atom. The touch-potentials combine with the vibratory particles (sound-potential) to generate the vāyu-atom. The light-and-heat potentials combine with touch-potentials and sound-potentials to produce the tejas-atom. The taste-potentials combine with light-and-heat potentials, touch-potentials and sound-potentials to generate the ap-atom and the smell-potentials combine with the preceding potentials to generate the earth-atom. The ākāśa-atom possesses penetrability, the vāyu-atom impact or mechanical pressure, the tejas-atom radiant heat and light, the ap-atom viscous attraction and the earth-atom cohesive attraction. The ākāśa we have seen forms the transition link from the bhūtādi to the tanmātra and from the tanmātra to the atomic production; it therefore deserves a special notice at this stage.

Sāṃkhya distinguishes between a kāraṇa-ākāśa and kāryākāśa. The kāraṇa-ākāśa (non-atomic and all-pervasive) is the formless tamas—the mass in prakṛti or bhūtādi; it is indeed all-pervasive, and is not a mere negation, a mere unoccupiedness (āvaraṇābhāva) or vacuum[5]. When energy is first associated with this tamas element it gives rise to the sound-potential ; the atomic ākāśa is the result of the integration of the original mass-units from bhūtādi with this sound-potential (śabda tanmātra). Such an ākāśa-atom is called the kāryākāśa; it is formed everywhere and held up in the original kāraṇa ākāśa as the medium for the development of vāyu atoms. Being atomic it occupies limited space.

The ahaṃkāra and the five tanmātras are technically called aviśeṣa or indeterminate, for further determinations or differentiations of them for the formation of newer categories of existence are possible. The eleven senses and the five atoms are called viśeṣa , i.e. determinate, for they cannot further be so determined as to form a new category of existence. It is thus that the course of evolution which started in the prakṛti reaches its furthest limit in the production of the senses on the one side and the atoms on the other. Changes no doubt take place in bodies having atomic constitution, but these changes are changes of quality due to spatial changes in the position of the atoms or to the introduction of new atoms and their re-arrangement. But these are not such that a newer category of existence could be formed by them which was substantially different from the combined atoms. The changes that take place in the atomic constitution of things certainly deserve to be noticed. But before we go on to this, it will be better to enquire about the principle of causation according to which the Sāṃkhya-Yoga evolution should be comprehended or interpreted.

Footnotes and references:


I have accepted in this section and in the next many of the translations of Sanskrit terms and expressions of Dr Seal and am largely indebted to him for his illuminating exposition of this subject as given in Ray’s Hindu Chemistry. The credit of explaining Sāṃkhya physics in the light of the text belongs entirely to him.


Dr Seal’s Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus.


Dr Seal’s Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus.


There were various ways in which the genesis of tanmātras and atoms were explained in literatures other than Sāṃkhya; for some account of it see Dr Seal’s Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus.


Dr B. N. Seal in describing this ākāśa says “Akāśa corresponds in some respects to the ether of the physicists and in others to what may be called proto-atom (protyle).” Ray’s History of Hindu Chemistry, p. 88.

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